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Finding the Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English Dictionary

  • The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the accepted authority on the English language. It is the most comprehensive record of the English language in the world with more than 600,000 words. As a historical dictionary, the OED is very different from those of current English, in which the focus is on present-day meanings. You’ll still find these in the OED, but you’ll also find the history of individual words used for a particular concept or meaning over time.
  • The OED is updated quarterly.

The Oxford English Dictionary Oxford University Press

  • Location: PE1625 .O8 1989 (General Collection; Rare Book)
  • Note: Library has the 2nd (1989) and the 1st (1888-1928) editions with no supplements.

Understanding OED Editions

The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps one of the most recognized dictionaries in the world. With past and present definitions of over 600,000 words, the OED touts itself as a "historical dictionary" that includes not only the current definition of a word, but also its history. According to the OED About page, the OED uses "3 million quotations, from classic literature and specialist periodicals to film scripts and cookery books" to trace the history of the English language.

But how did the OED evolve? And what edition should you be using? This page explores the beginnings of the OED through the 1989 Second Edition. Part 2 takes a deep dive into the current OED updating process.

The first edition of the OED, titled A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, took 70 years to complete. In 1857, the Philological Society of London embarked on a quest to develop "a complete re-examination of the language from Anglo-Saxon times onward". It was originally planned as a four volume set that would take approximately 10 years to complete. The complexities and evolution of the English language, however, caused the editors to spend more time than anticipated on this project. The first part, or "fascicle", was published in 1884. The last volume was published in 1928 and the now ten volume set included over 400,000 words and phrases. Because of the large amount of time it took to complete this project, volumes may have different copyright dates.

Though the dictionary was "completed", language is continually evolving. Because of this, the editors recognized that to keep the dictionary relevant, it needed to be updated. A supplement was published in 1933 and the set was reprinted as twelve volumes. It was during this time that the title formally changed to the Oxford English Dictionary. This twelve volume set (minus the 1933 supplement) is available at Jenkins.

Work on a more substantial supplement began in 1957. This new Supplement was published in four volumes between 1972 and 1986. It included "much new information on the language (especially on twentieth century vocabulary)". It also added more scientific and technical terms as well as broadened its scope "to include considerably more words from North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South Asia, and the Caribbean".

In 1982, plans were made to integrate the supplements into the main text as well as transform it into "a machine-readable resource" to usher it into the electronic age. This five year, $13.5 million project employed 120 keyboarders who typed each definition and 50 proofreaders who checked the work. Lexicographers not only "reviewed, corrected, and edited this new electronic dictionary", they also added 5,000 new words. This Second Edition (available at Jenkins) was published in 1989 and encompasses 20 volumes. In 1992, the OED was published in CD-ROM format. Not only was this a space-saving measure, it also "revolutionized the way people use the Dictionary to search and retrieve information" and would lead the way to the current electronic version of the OED.

To update the Second Edition, editors started by compiling and publishing "Additions to the Second Edition". Three volumes were published before the decision was made to move all updates to the online platform.

The Second Edition and its three Additions are the last updates available in print. But don't fear, the OED is still being updated! Take a look at Part 2 to find out about the OED online and its updating process.

Interested in exploring more of the history of the OED? Find their full history online: History of the OED, The OED Today, OED Editions, and Dictionary Milestones.

Though the Second Edition is the last edition available in print, the OED is continuously being updated on its online platform. In fact, not only are new words added to the OED, each existing word is individually being evaluated and updated as part of the Third Edition. This page explores how the current updating process works and how to find out if an individual word has been updated.

The updating process to the Second Edition began in 1993 and continues today. The revision process begins with the collection of evidence. This evidence comes from numerous sources, including "targeted reading programmes" where readers "scrutinize texts such as novels, poetry, magazines, newspapers, scientific journals, television scripts, etc." looking for "examples of new words, but also for good, quotable examples of older words". Historical dictionaries, online databases, and public contributions also add to the evidence for revision.

Once evidence has been gathered, the quotations need to be organized. Editors and research assistants use the OED's "quotation-card collection" to "assess the frequency of occurrence and meaning of potential new entries". From this research the decision to include or not include a word or meaning is made. The OED does not include every word. For example, if the editors could only find one example of a word, it may not meet the criteria to be included in the OED. However, the example is kept in the quotation-card collection in case further examples eventually surface.

After a word or meaning has been chosen for inclusion in the OED, the editing process begins. There are seven principal components to each OED entry: Headword, Pronunciation, Forms, Etymology, Definition, Quotation, and Sense. Once these are in place, the editor will evaluate the entry as a whole "to ensure that the various parts satisfactorily demonstrate the term’s history and development in English". When needed, specialists, like etymological editors, may be consulted. Bibliographical editors also double check the citations, ensuring that the "the text and date of evidence are as accurate as possible".

But what does this lengthy, time-consuming update process mean for the end-user? It means that the edition of the OED on the online database depends on the word. Some words haven't been revised yet and the Second Edition is the most up-to-date version of the word. Some words have been revised but not fully updated, so the online edition may differ from the print Second Edition. And some words have been fully updated and are considered part of the Third Edition.

Each entry in the OED online lists its history. Pro bono, for example, was updated for the Third Edition in the June 2007 update and most recently modified in July 2023. You can find this information by clicking (details) next to the revision note on the top left of the screen. 

Clicking on (details) shows that this phrase was added to the OED as part of the 1993 Addition, after the publication of the Second Edition:

For updated Third Edition entries that were included in the Second Edition, a link to the Second Edition (1989) text is also included in the (details) feature. As an example, see the (details) [located in the top left corner of the OED entry] for qui tam:

The OED revision project is on-going, and not all entries have been updated. The entry for library, for example, has not been fully updated. However, you can compare its current iteration with its entry in the Second Edition:

The OED online is updated on a quarterly basis, and the lists of updates are available online. 

For more information on the OED revision process, see the OED's How words enter the OED article or infographic.